Finding the Art in Everything

28 October, 2011

P is for Providence

In class, as we were working on models of creation and scientific reconciliation, we were challenged to choose one and defend it. I find these decisions difficult, but as I wrestled with it, a new standard occurred to me: I’m not just looking for truth, I’m looking for a truth I can live with. This makes all the difference when defining my own worldview: a worldview isn’t merely a set of ideas I comprehend and occasionally reference. It’s the set of ideas I’ve decided to live with, for better or worse.

In the creation exercise, I chose the pictorial day theory of reconciliation. This suggests that God revealed to Moses the sequence of creation in a series of visions, and Moses chose to organize and communicate them in terms of days. As a writer and an artist, the literary framework theory fits my context the best—it works in image and metaphor. Beyond its personal appeal, I chose it because it offers the most amount of space for both science and scripture to live in. It doesn’t insist on scientific proof we’ll never have, such as the exact age of the earth. It also doesn’t let the science we do have threaten the claims of the bible. It still follows a logical, recognizable ordered pattern, which is congruent with our scientific observations in creation, and our spiritual ones about God’s nature. But most important, it liberates the conversation from the confines of the literal six days hog-tied to soteriology. The credibility of a bible I’m willing to live with depends upon much more than the claim of 6 days. Questioning 6 literal days does not undermine the bible’s authority as much as pitting it against science, in my view, unnecessarily.

I then turned my attention to the doctrine of Providence I sifted through the ideological possibilities and measured those views against my world. I realized I’m unwilling to live with the idea of limited providence. A God I’ll stake my life on must offer comprehensive control or provision that is utterly independent from all other forces—a provident omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence that is subject to nothing, especially not me. Also, I can’t live with a reality that selectively includes Divine influence and assistance. I’m too aware of natural evil, the general moral evil, and my own faults and frailty. If God is our only hope, we can only hope that He is everywhere, working in everything, all the time.

Yet, I realize I can’t live with the idea that God eliminates or limits genuine human freedom. A divine totalitarian is inconsistent with both human behavior and His own definition of Love. Inherently, some aspects of love are voluntary. Observable reality shows that our choices have effects, and often painful effects from poor ones. If freedom is genuine, we must be permitted to choose poorly. Yet, I recall a set of historical political illustrations from the Great Depression that Norman Rockwell created for FDR. They were called the “Four Freedoms” and they changed the definition of American Freedom. They shifted the definition of Freedom from “Freedom to…” to “Freedom from…”. Not only should we be free to choose our leaders, but we should be free ­from fear and hunger. When I think about God’s capability to make us free from that which torments our earthly existence, I am not sure I’m unwilling to sacrifice my volition for the guarantee of peace and provision. I’m not impressed by what human volition has earned us.

This is partly why I have difficulty with the discussion of freedom and human will so commonly confined, again, to soteriological matters. I’m thinking of conversations that involve flowers and five points. They seem to trivialize the definition of freedom and our dilemma. Perhaps it would be better to begin the conversation with providence and extend it to soteriology, not work backwards from it. But I think it would be best to start the conversation with Jesus, who models the only conceivable solution to the quandary. God’s providence is deeply connected to freedom, yet the nature of freedom is deeply voluntary. And the consequences of (at least) human volition threaten or ruin the freedom and goodness He’s offered. However, if we voluntarily surrender our volition to God, praying “Your will be done”, as Jesus did, then freedom and will are reconciled. And that is a reconciliation I can live with.

18 May, 2011


I have had a momentous year, but there's little to show for it here.

For the last nine months, I have been doing a different kind of "posting". My best art and insight has been "posted" with 28 cents and the help of the mailman.

If you are a regular reader of my blog, it's not that I've abandoned it. It's just that you're not on my mailing list. Sorry.

22 April, 2011

New Office Tenant

Tim, our church's intern, has a new pet he collected at China Camp State Park. It lives in my old candy jar on his desk in my old office. I saw it, and I was reminded of a poem sent to me by a friend some years ago. He sent it to me because I was studying prayer.

ISKANDARIYA by Bridget Pegeen Kelly

It was not a scorpion I asked for, I asked for a fish, but
maybe God misheard my request, maybe God thought
I said not "some sort of fish," but a "scorpion fish," a
request he would surely have granted, being a goodly
God, but then he forgot the "fish" attached to the
"scorpion" (because God, too, forgets, everything
forgets); so instead of an edible fish, any small fish,
sweet or sour, or even the grotesque buffoonery of the
striped scorpion fish, crowned with spines and
followed by many tails, a veritable sideshow of a fish;
instead of these, I was given an insect, a peculiar
prehistoric creature, part lobster, part spider, part
bell-ringer, part son of a fallen star, something like a
disfigured armored dog, not a thing you can eat, or
even take on a meaningful walk, so ugly is it, so stiffly
does it step, as if on ice, freezing again and again in
mid-air like a listening ear, and then scuttling
backwards or leaping madly forward, its deadly tail
doing a St. Vitus jig. God gave me a scorpion, a
venomous creature, to be sure, a bug with the bite of
Cleopatra's asp, but not, as I soon found out, despite
the dark gossip, a lover of violence or a hater of men.
In truth, it is shy, the scorpion, a creature with eight
eyes and almost no sight, who shuns the daylight, and
is driven mad by fire, who favors the lonely spot, and
feeds on nothing much, and only throws out its poison
barb when backed against a wall— a thing like me,
but not the thing I asked for, a thing, by accident or
design, I am now attached to. And so I draw the
curtains, and so I lay out strange dishes, and so I step
softly, and so I do not speak, and only twice, in many
years, have I been stung, both times because,
unthinking, I let in the terrible light. And sometimes
now, when I watch the scorpion sleep, I see how fine he
is, how rare, this creature called Lung Book or Mortal
Book because of his strange organs of breath. His
lungs are holes in his body, which open and close. And
inside the holes are stiffened membranes, arranged
like the pages of a book— imagine that! And when the
holes open, the pages rise up and unfold, and the blood
that circles through them touches the air, and by this
bath of air the blood is made pure... He is a house of
books, my shy scorpion, carrying in his belly all the
perishable manuscripts— a little mirror of the library
at Alexandria, which burned.

12 March, 2011

I is for Israelites

No one tells you that freedom first feels like death.

I met with my spiritual director this week and confessed that I want to go home every day. And I have wanted to turn around and go home nearly every day since I got here. Those of you who get postcards from me don't really get ones that say that. But I do. I drive around, taking in the beauty of Marin, and still saying aloud to myself, "I want my old life back." I am weary, lonely, lost, and worried. I miss my cute apartment, my space, my family, my friends, my job, my security, my spaniel, the familiarity, the comfort in a way that bears down on me like a physical weight. And while I know my "old life" is impossible to retrieve, it's the only name I can put on the relief I crave.

When I explained this to my spiritual director, he said, "I bet you're asking God, 'Did you bring me out here to die?!?'"

YES! That's exactly what I was wondering. Did God bring me here to die?!?

He smiled and showed me that this is not the first time God has heard that question. The Israelites asked it too.

It's a fool's errand to seek the specific place in Exodus where that happens: They ask it of God an embarrassing number of times, and when God's astounding miracles are shamefully recent. They ask it right before God opens the Red Sea, and a week after eating the meat and bread he provides in the desert.

I can see why they do this. Did God bring them there to die? If the answer is no, then why are these circumstances surprisingly brutal? If the answer is is yes, then that idea is unacceptable. We'd prefer Egypt, thanks.

But the answer is yes, and preferring Egypt, in light of God's mercy, is the unacceptable thing.

Paul suggests that this pain is not the pain of abandonment, but the pain of something else:

[8] We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; [9] persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; [10] always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. [11] For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. [12] So death is at work in us, but life in you...[16] So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. [17] For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, [18] as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:8-18 ESV)

C.S. Lewis writes my favorite explanation for what might be going on here:

"The terrible thing, the almost impossible thing, is to hand over your whole self--all your wishes and precautions--to Christ.

"Christ says 'Give me All. I don't want so much of your time and so much of your money and so much of your work: I want You. I have not come to torment your natural self, but to kill it. No half measures are any good. I don't want to cut off a branch here and a branch there, I want to have the whole tree down. I don't want to drill the tooth, or crown it, or stop it, but to have it out. Hand over the whole natural self, all the desires which you think innocent as well as the ones you think wicked--the whole outfit. I will give you a new self instead. In fact, I will give you Myself: My own will shall become yours.'...

"When I was a child I often had toothache, and I knew that if I went to my mother she would give me something which would deaden the pain for that night and let me get to sleep. But I did not go to my mother--at least not till the pain became very bad. And the reason I did not go was this. I did not doubt she would give me the aspirin; but I knew she would also do something else. I could not get what I wanted out of her without getting something more, which I did not want. I wanted immediate relief from pain, but I could not get it without having my teeth set permanently right. And I knew those dentists; I knew they started fiddling about with all sorts of other teeth which had not yet begun to ache. They would not let sleeping dogs lie. If you gave them an inch they would take a mile.

"Now, if I may put it that way, our Lord is like the dentists. If you give Him an inch, He will take a mile. Dozens of people go to Him to be cured of some one particular sin which they are ashamed of... or which is obviously spoiling daily life (like bad temper or drunkenness). Well, He will cure it alright: but He will not stop there. That may be all you ask; but if once you call Him in, He will give you the full treatment. That is why He warned people to 'count the cost' before becoming Christians. 'Make no mistake,' He says, 'If you let me, I will make you perfect. The moment you put yourself in My hands, that is what you are in for. Nothing less or other than that.'

"'Whatever suffering it may cost you in your earthly life... whatever it cost Me, I will never rest, nor let you rest, until you are literally perfect--until my Father can say without reservation that He is well pleased with you, as He said He was well pleased with me. This I can do and will do. But I will not do anything less.'

"The goal toward which He is beginning to guide you is absolute perfection; and no power in the whole universe, except you yourself, can prevent Him from taking you to that goal. That is what you are in for. And it is very important to realize that. If we do not, then we are very likely to start pulling back and resisting Him after a certain point. I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not put it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do. And we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone.

"But this is the fatal mistake... The question is not what we intended ourselves to be, but what He intended us to be when He made us....

"Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you know that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of--throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself!"

I am starting to see that all I can see right now is the pain of this work. I am not capable of perceiving the meaning of all this in my mind and body, but I can wait for the grace of God in my spirit.

The Israelites complain because they, too, are buried by their own distress. They are hemmed in by the mountains, the sea, and the Egyptian army where surely death is imminent. They are on the verge of starvation and dehydration, and Moses tells them, "The Lord will fight for you; you need only be still...In the evening you will know that it was the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, and in the morning you will see the glory of the Lord, because he has heard your grumbling against him."

These circumstances--the Israelites and mine--are clear examples of enforced dependence on God, and the Israelites had to rely on God's provision every day for 40 years just to survive.

For the millennia, God has treated his people in this way. It's not brutality; it's mercy.

And we see from the Israelites that we need only be still to see oceans opened and food at our feet.

The 8th-Grade Roommate Chronicles

I have been looking for my favorite knee-high boots for ten days. I had looked everywhere for these boots, concluding today that they had fallen out of my car in my travels and they were gone forever.

Today, I get into the room I share with Kaelyn, and I see these boots on the floor by the ottomans. These ottomans are hollow and have been nicknamed "Doom" and "Despair". No one wants to look inside.

This partly explains how my boots went missing for so long.

The other part came when I asked Kaelyn about their reappearance.

It turns out she'd been assigned a last-minute tidy "sometime last week-ish", and, um, sort of tossed them into Doom and Despair.


"They were hungry".

So we had a heart-to-heart and set a new rule (which I thought went without saying):

We do not feed our roommates' footwear to the furniture.

07 March, 2011

Top-five things I Learned from Erin Pendergast

I find myself missing my lunches with this wise and funny teacher-friend weekly.

1. Life makes more sense when there are fewer American taboos.
2. Life requires irreverence. Just laugh.
3. Life requires at least three languages to explain it properly.
4. People are what's really important.
5. Actually, being a mom is pretty awesome.

01 March, 2011

Life Lessons

#31. Try to find a tattoo artist who doesn't miss. In this industry, precision is the highest virtue. It's tied with hygienic.

Top-five things I learned from Jennifer Strahl

Continuing the series, my greatest friends have been my greatest teachers.

Top-5 Lessons I learned from Jennifer Strahl:

1. The line between dressing and costuming is a fine one, and it's worth crossing occasionally.

2. What this situation needs is cupcakes.

3. If some is good, more is better.

4. You can be fearless if you have a map.

5. Never underestimate what Love can accomplish.

When I first started at MVA, people in my life observed some very strange behavior in me. I always had one response to their questions:

1. "Why do you do the school musical/play/Christmas pageant, etc?" Because Jen does.

2. "Why are you on the academic team, again? Why are you 'chasing the Nerd Herd'?" Because Jen does.

3. "Why are you adopting your students as sons/daughters/nieces/nephews/pets, again?" Because Jen does.

4. "Why are YOU listening to Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, Justin Timberlake, and house music?"Because Jen does.

5. "And just why are you going all the way to Winter Park for that?" Because Jen does.

And if you know the two of us well, you know this is only the beginning of the list.

28 February, 2011

Top-five Things I learned from Troy Urquhart

As a teacher, my greatest blessing is the friends who are also my teachers.

The Top-five Things I Learned from Troy Urquhart:

1. The search for Truth depends on the search for the Right Question.

2. Someone answered that question for you already. Go read.

3. There is no shame in being an elitist or connoisseur.

4. There is no excuse for the unwillingness to work hard.

5. To start with "So basically..." is to indicate you have already missed the point.